In Turkey, a festival revives a jewel of the Sephardic world and aims to break stereotypes

IZMIR, Turkey (JTA) – Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague has been a popular tourist destination for Jewish pilgrims and others interested in Jewish history. The Nazis left many of the city’s synagogues and Jewish sites relatively intact, intending to present them as remnants of a vanished culture – and this allows the Czech capital to offer an unusual look at the pre-war infrastructure of Ashkenazi Europe.

Could Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, become a Sephardic counterpart in terms of history and tourism? That’s the goal for Izmir Jewish Heritage Project Director Nessim Benkoya.

The city, once known as Smyrna in Greek, has had a Jewish presence since ancient times, with early church documents mentioning Jews as early as the second century AD. Like elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, its community grew exponentially with the influx of Sephardic Jews who arrived after the expulsion from Spain.

In its heyday, the city was home to some 30,000 Jews and home to Jewish artists, writers and rabbis – from the venerable Pallache and Algazi rabbinic families, to the musician Dario Marino, to the famous False Messiah, Shabbetai JVTheir childhood home is still in Izmir.

Today, fewer than 1,300 remain. The establishment of the State of Israel, along with a century of economic and political upheaval, led to the emigration of the majority of Turkish Jews.

“Since the 17th century, Izmir has been the center of Sephardic Jewry,” Benkoya told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We can’t rebuild it, but we can’t forget it.”


Izmir is located on the Aegean coast of Turkey. (David I. Klein)

Celebrated in the ancient Jewish quarter

Benkoya, in his late 60s, was born in Izmir but spent most of his adult life in Israel, where he headed the Haifa Cinematheque, but he returned to Izmir 13 years ago to lead the Heritage Project, which he worked to highlight. Culture and history of the Jewish community of Izmir.

Thousands of people have attended the annual Sephardic culture festival he has organized since 2018, including the week of Hanukkah over nine days in December. The festival features Jewish and Ladino music, traditional food tastings, lectures and lectures on Izmir’s Jewish community. Coinciding with Hanukkah and Shabbat – both the menorah lighting ceremony and the Havdalah ceremony were held with interpretations from Izmir’s leading cantor, Nessim Beruchiel.

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This year’s festival marked a turning point: the first that the organizers were able to perform Many centuries old chapels The project – funded by the European Union and the local municipality – is being renovated.

The many synagogues clustered around the street still known as Havra Sokak (Havra is the Turkish spelling of the Hebrew word chevra or congregation) represent a unique piece of cultural heritage.

Nesim Benkoya.

Nessim Benkoya speaks from his office next to the restored Signora Synagogue in Izmir. (David I. Klein)

Once, this street was the heart of the Jewish quarter, or “Juderia,” but today it’s the center of Izmir’s Cameralti Bazaar, a bustling market district spread over nearly 150 acres where almost anything can be bought and sold. In Havra Sokak, traders hawk fresh fruit and hopefully fresh fish. In one street to the south one can find all kinds of leather goods; The northern one contained a market for gold, silver, and other precious metals; To the west are a number of coffee shops. All the other shops in between sell everything from handicrafts to tchotchkes to kitchenware to underwear.

Several mosques and a few churches surround the area, while synagogues revive the unique character of the lost district.

“The chapels here were built in the light of Spain. But in Spain today, there are only two major historical synagogues, Toledo and Córdoba, and they are large. You have no small ones. Here we have six in one block, built in memory of those who left Spain,” Benkoya said.

Those synagogues were home to major events in Jewish history – when Shabbati Zvi broke into Izmir’s Portuguese synagogue one Sabbath morning, drove out his opponents and proclaimed himself the Messiah (He developed a large following but was later imprisoned and forced to convert to Islam) A synagogue known as Porkez in Turkish is one of those restored by the project.

Today, only two of Izmir’s synagogues are in regular use by its Jewish community, but the restored rest are now available as exhibition and event spaces.

Education for non-Jews

Holding the festival in Izmir’s unique synagogues had an added advantage, as the majority of attendees were non-Jewish.

“Many people who come to the festival have never been to a synagogue, and a small percentage of them have met a Jew once in their life,” Benkoya said.

This is especially important in a country where anti-Semitic beliefs are uncommon. In a 2015 study by the Anti-Defamation League, 71% of respondents from Turkey believed in some anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The festival includes Jewish and Ladino music concerts, traditional food tastings, and lectures on Izmir’s Jewish community. (David I. Klein)

“This festival is not for the Jews, but for the non-Jews,” Benkoya said. Now, “hundreds of Turkish Muslim people come to see us, hear our holidays and taste what we do.”

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Keira Ergen of Izmir, who attended the Ladino concert and menorah lighting event at the end of the festival, told JTA that until a year ago, she had no idea what Jewish Izmir once looked like.

“I know that Anatolia is a multicultural land, and so is Turkey, but this religion, that is, the Jewish people, left this place a long time ago because of many bad events. But it is good to remember these people and their roots in Izmir,” said Ergen. So sad and lame to say it out loud, but I didn’t know about this – just 70 years ago, 60% of the area was in Konak. [the district around Kemeralti] the jew I believe only 1,300 remain today. This is not good. But we have to do what we can and this festival is a good example of showing love between cultures.

“I think it’s good that we respect each other here,” said Zeynep Uslu, another resident of Izmir. “So many different cultures and so many different people. It’s great that we’re here together to celebrate something so special.

Izmir’s history as home to minorities is not all rosy. At the end of the Ottoman period, the city was half Greek, one-tenth Jewish and one-tenth Armenian, the rest a mix of Turkish Muslims and foreigners. During the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 – remembered in Turkey as the Turkish War of Independence – Izmir’s Greek and Armenian quarters were burned to the ground after the Greek army recaptured the city, killing tens of thousands of people. A mass exodus of survivors followed, but the Jewish and Muslim parts of the city remained largely unscathed.

Izmir is not the only city in Turkey whose synagogues have been renovated in recent years. Notable projects are being completed in Edirne and Kilis on the Turkish western border near Bulgaria, on its southeastern border near Syria. However, unlike Izmir, there are no Jews in those cities today, and many have accused the project of being a tool for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Reduce accusations of antisemitismWithout actually dealing with living Jews.

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Losing the Ladino and the ‘quiet’ mentality

Benkoya was angry that they were in the last generation Ladino – a Judeo-Spanish language traditionally spoken by Sephardic Jews, but spoken today by only tens of thousands – for at least part of his childhood.

“When you lose a language, it’s not just technical, it’s not just vocabulary, it’s a whole world and way of thinking,” Benkoya said.

The project is also challenging the mentality of local Jews. According to Benkoya, minority groups in Izmir, especially the Jews, “preferred to be invisible, not to be felt for a long time.

That mentality is codified in the collective mentality of the Turkish Jewish community in the form of the Ladino word, “kayedes,” which means “sh,” “be quiet,” or “put your head down.”

“It’s the exact opposite of what I want to do with this festival — to feel, to raise awareness of my existence,” Benkoya said.

The Bikur Holim Synagogue is one of the few still functioning in Izmir. (David I. Klein)

One way to do that, he added, is for the festival to represent the community’s identity “as Jewish rather than Jewish.” Both are Turkish words referring to Jews: the former has the same root as the English word Jew — the Hebrew word Yehuda or Judea — while the latter means “follower of Moses.”

“Jewish, Jewish, Hebrew [meaning Hebrew, in Turkish] – They all mean the same thing, but in Turkey, they say musevi, because it sounds nice,” Benkoya said. “The Jew has a lot of negative superlatives – dirty Yahudi, dirty Yahudi and this and that. So I insisted on saying Yahudi, because people have a lot of preconceived notions about the name Yahudi. So if you have preconceived notions about me, let’s open them up and talk about them.

“I’m not so romantic that I can eliminate all anti-Semitism, but if I can eliminate some prejudices, I can live a little more peacefully,” he added.

So far, he feels the festival has been a successful first step.

“Izmir’s non-Jewish community was attracted,” Benkoya said. “If you look on Facebook and Instagram, they’re talking about it, they’re fighting for tickets, it’s selling out almost immediately.”

Now, he is only thinking about how he can fit more people into the small and elderly chapels next year.

“For Turkey, [the festival] Very important because Turkey will be one of the enlightened countries of the world, only by knowing the differences between groups of people such as Jews, Christians, others and Muslims,” ​​he said.


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